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ABCs of the Affordable Care Act: a glossary for consumers


Major new laws come with their own jargon, and the health care overhaul known as the Affordable Care Act is no exception. With the first open enrollment season kicking off for the uninsured, here are some terms consumers might want to get familiar with:

Affordable Care Act — The most common formal name for the health care law. Its full title is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Opponents still deride the law as “Obamacare,” but Obama himself has embraced that term, saying it shows he cares.

Employer mandate — A federal requirement that companies with 50 or more workers pay a penalty to the government if one of their workers obtains taxpayer subsidized coverage through the law. Delayed one year to Jan. 1, 2015. Intended to keep companies from “dumping” employees into public coverage.

Individual mandate — A federal requirement that virtually everyone in the United States has health insurance, either through an employer, a government program or by buying his own plan. Effective Jan. 1, 2014. Exemptions for financial hardship and religious objections. Does not apply to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. People who ignore the mandate will face fines from the Internal Revenue Service.

Essential health benefits — Basic health benefits that most health insurance plans will have to cover starting in 2014. They include office visits, emergency services, hospitalization, rehab care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, prescriptions, lab tests, prevention, maternal and newborn care, and pediatric care.

Marketplaces — Online health insurance markets in each state where consumers can get private health insurance, subsidized by the government. They used to be called “exchanges,” but the feds decided that was too confusing and started calling them “marketplaces.” Still, some states stuck with the original name. Open enrollment starts Oct. 1, and the coverage takes effect Jan. 1, 2014. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., are running their own marketplaces, according to a tally by The Associated Press. The Obama administration is taking the lead in 35 states, including Ohio, in some cases partnering with the state government. All the marketplaces can be accessed online through healthcare.gov. Small businesses will have their own marketplaces.

Medicaid expansion — The health care law also expands the federal-state safety-net program to cover more low-income people. Medicaid is expected to account for about half of the 25 million uninsured people who, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, eventually will gain coverage through the law. The federal government will pay the full cost of the new coverage from 2014-2016, then phase down to 90 percent. Twenty-four states plus Washington, D.C., have accepted the expansion, according to AP’s count. Eight states are still considering it, including Ohio. And 18 have rejected it, including Texas and Florida, which have many uninsured residents. Many adults below the poverty level will remain uninsured in the refusing states. A state can change its decision at any time, but the full federal payment for the expansion is only available through 2016.

Metal levels — The four levels of coverage available through exchange plans, called bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Bronze plans feature the lowest monthly premiums, but cover only 60 percent of average costs. Platinum plans have higher premiums and cover 90 percent of expected costs.

Pre-existing condition — An ongoing or past health problem. Currently insurers can use pre-existing conditions to deny or restrict coverage, or charge more. Those practices will be barred by federal law starting Jan. 1, 2014, and insurers will have to accept all applicants.

Tax credits — Government health insurance subsidies for individuals will come in the form of tax credits. The money will be paid directly to the consumer’s health plan, to help cover premiums. The subsidies are on a sliding scale based on income. Each year, people will have to “true up” with the IRS to make sure they got the right amount. People who receive too generous a tax credit may owe money back to the government.

Tax penalty — The fine levied on individuals who disregard the individual insurance mandate. It starts small and gets bigger in subsequent years. In 2014 it’s $95 or 1 percent of taxable income. By 2016, it’s $695 or 2.5 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater. Thereafter it’s adjusted for inflation.


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